Houston’s light rail system carried its first passenger on New Year's Day in 2004 after two decades of starts and stops, financing troubles and controversy over its need in the car-loving U.S. energy capital.
Since then, the original Red Line has exceeded expectations, carrying 48,000 passengers per day between the Texas Medical Center and downtown, making it one of the country’s most traveled lines based on boardings per track mile.
Property values within one mile of the Red Line have soared 17 percent over a three-year period, according to a Harris County analysis, while restaurants, shops and other development sprouted nearby in the midtown area.
With the addition of two new eastward lines – the Green and Purple – and the lengthening of the Red Line, the MetroRail now covers 22 miles and reached 18.5 million boardings last year. In July, ridership was up 5 percent over the same time last year.
Still, many wonder where Houston’s light rail system is headed, especially after Hurricane Harvey, which shined a light on the problems brought on by urban sprawl.
It’s a question that the system’s operator, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, known simply as Metro, is contemplating now. In August, the agency began asking communities for feedback so it can decide which projects to pursue as part of MetroNext, its regional transit plan. It’s expected to have a preliminary plan before year-end.
Mass transit is an important issue for Houston, which according to pre-Harvey estimates is expected to reach a population of 9.6 million, a 65 percent jump over the 5.8 million recorded in 2010, says the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a voluntary association of local governments.
“There is no question our area is growing,” Metro chair Carrin Patman said in a message to Houston residents. “With your help, we can build a plan that keeps people moving and our economy strong for decades to come.”
Light rail will be part of the solution but not all of it, with commuter rail and new high-level bus services also figuring into the plan, says Alan Clark, director of transportation planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “There is severe congestion here, which points to an opportunity for high-capacity transit,” he said. “But it’s not as simple as putting tracks out there.”
Kyle Shelton, a program manager and fellow at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research and author of the upcoming book, “Power Moves: Transportation, Development and Politics in Houston,” said there are a few ideas for rail being batted around.
They include extending the Green Line to connect with a high-speed rail being developed to take passengers to Dallas as well as to reach Hobby Airport, and extending the Red Line northward to George Bush Intercontinental Airport and westward to a potential commuter rail that would reach Missouri City in Fort Bend County.
There’s also been talk about resurrecting plans for the Blue, or University, Line, that area residents – and U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a Republican – fought for years, leading it to lose federal funding last year due to a lack of demonstrated design progress and local financial commitment.
“The fact that the Blue Line has never been built is a big problem because the system was designed as a network,” Shelton said. “Without it, there’s a huge hole. It should be part of the long-range plan.”
There have been other issues with Houston’s light rail system along the way, including low usage on the two new lines – only 5,000 people per day versus 50,000 on the original Red Line – and technical difficulties. Clark cites train location sensors that weren’t working properly earlier this year and had to be replaced.
Issues of safety have also come up, with numerous train crashes with buses, cars and pedestrians, including a Rice professor on a bicycle who died in February. While most of the accidents weren’t Metro’s fault, the bad PR has made it difficult to expand the system.
Additionally, some critics have raised persistent doubts about whether MetroRail is economically sound and has helped businesses in the areas it serves.
Steven Craig, an economics professor at the University of Houston, thinks not. He reasons that if a third of the roadway is taken up by light rail and it’s not moving a third of the people, congestion goes up, not down. He believes that may be the case with the Red Line, which he doesn’t think is carrying a third of the people. “On that metric, they’re not a success,” he said. “Rail is really expensive and not an effective use of the land. It’s not addressing Houston’s transportation problem.”
Craig also doesn’t think the latest expansion is very successful. He said on his campus, the Purple Line runs nearly empty almost all of the time and doesn’t come from any student housing. “I see lots of students getting off of the bus, but not the train,” he said. “And someone is building new private student housing across the freeway, but it’s not on the line.”
Metro spokeswoman Laura Whitley cites statistics that light rail has improved property values in the areas where it runs. Besides the 17 percent increase in property values along the Red Line, there was a 38 percent jump in values along the Green Line to $18.6 billion and a 44 percent increase along the Purple Line to $19.3 billion.
Rice University’s Shelton said there is development along the Red Line in the midtown area. In the East End, where the Green Line runs, residents are beginning to see buildings in certain areas being retrofitted and turned into warehouse offices. “It’s not just because of the rail, but rail is a big part of that,” he said. “It will take a long time to see significant development.”
Another nagging issue: Houstonians may not be ready to leave their cars at home and use more public transportation. But that may change as the population ages and more residents look for public transit options.
The Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Clark said one of the key issues going forward is how important light rail and other forms of public transportation are to the regional economy. “Does the success of our region require this? Or is it just a nice thing to do?” he asked. “If it’s essential to our success, then the discussion about how we finance and implement these things becomes more immediate.”